Ohio: Battered in the Buckeye State

President-elect Barack Obama stood on the factory floor of Cardinal Fastener & Specialty in suburban Cleveland four days before taking office in January 2009 and said, “The first job of my Administration is to put people back to work.”

Nearly three years later, Cardinal, which makes bolts for wind turbines and construction projects, is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and down to about 25 workers from a peak of 65. Owner John Grabner, 58, says that although Obama was “the right man for the job” last time and he likes the President’s position on renewable energy, he hasn’t decided whether to support him in 2012. A Republican President, he says, might do more to spur job growth, plus Obama’s health-care overhaul “is a problem” for small- and medium-size businesses. “The incentives to grow jobs have not been there like it should have been,” Grabner says.

Ohio, which put President George W. Bush over the top for reelection in 2004 and favored Obama in 2008 with 51.5 percent of the vote, is poised again to help decide the Presidency in sour economic times. In the past decade the state has lost more jobs than any besides Michigan and California—including 300,100 manufacturing positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “It’s a challenging environment for an incumbent, but it doesn’t mean that it’s enough just to say, ‘He took us down the wrong path.’ You have to also say what is a better path,” says Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

Obama “still needs to be the candidate of hope and confidence, but this time hope and confidence that his agenda is making a difference,” says David Wilhelm, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee who managed President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and now is active in energy development and venture capital in Ohio.

Despite losing two electoral votes, the nation’s seventh-most-populous state is a competitive and diverse bellwether, according to a new book, Buckeye Battleground, by four University of Akron political science professors. No Republican has won the Presidency without carrying the state. “In 2012 the fortunes of President Obama will reside in the performance of the economy and its impact in Ohio,” wrote John C. Green, one of the book’s authors.

The Buckeye State has added a net of 66,800 jobs during the past year, according to federal labor data, though its unemployment rate matched the national rate of 9.1 percent in September. The last forecast from the Ohio Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors in May shows the jobless number falling only marginally, to 8.9 percent, next year.

Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics in Pepper Pike, says that’s close to his own forecast. He sees a potential rebound in the auto industry—Ohio was second in the nation to Michigan last year in vehicle production, according to the state’s Development Dept. Natural-gas production in the eastern part of the state may also help fuel a tenuous recovery.

In 2008, Obama carried 97 percent of the black vote in Ohio and won 18- to 29-year-olds by 25 percentage points, according to exit polls. The President’s support among those groups has waned because of the economy and “unreasonable” expectations, says Democratic Representative Marcia L. Fudge of Cleveland. Many still would back Obama, which makes getting them to the polls crucial, she says.

Noah Trimble is a part-time student at Ohio State University in Columbus who also works at a tire store to cover the $20,000 in tuition, room, and board. He wishes the President had done more, as he promised, to make college more affordable. “I feel like he got the wind taken out of his sails,” says the 21-year-old, who intends to vote for Obama again.

In Ohio, Obama will make the case that while Republicans’ response to the recession was to push for tax cuts for large corporations and the wealthy, he took decisive steps that included rescuing the auto industry, says Ben LaBolt, spokesman for Obama’s reelection campaign. The President also will zero in on the actions of Governor John Kasich and Republicans who took power last year, including limiting collective bargaining for public employees, says Ted Strickland, the former Democratic governor.

Strickland lost a reelection bid to Kasich by 77,000 votes out of 3.85 million in 2010, which he blamed on the economy and poor turnout among a dispirited Democratic base. A Nov. 8 ballot issue to repeal the union-bargaining law is helping energize his party, Strickland says: “They gave someone else a chance, and the people of Ohio have seen what happens.”

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